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A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History | [Nicholas Wade]

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History

Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory. Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right.
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Publisher's Summary

Drawing on startling new evidence from the mapping of the genome, an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story.

Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory.

Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right. And in fact, we know that populations have changed in the past few thousand years - to be lactose tolerant, for example, and to survive at high altitudes. Race is not a bright-line distinction; by definition it means that the more human populations are kept apart, the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.

Wade, the longtime journalist covering genetic advances for The New York Times, draws widely on the work of scientists who have made crucial breakthroughs in establishing the reality of recent human evolution. The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits - thrift, docility, nonviolence - have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues. These "values" obviously had a strong cultural component, but Wade points to evidence that agrarian societies evolved away from hunter-gatherer societies in some crucial respects. Also controversial are his findings regarding the genetic basis of traits we associate with intelligence, such as literacy and numeracy, in certain ethnic populations, including the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews.

Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples. He also believes that science is best served by pursuing the truth without fear, and if his mission to arrive at a coherent summa of what the new genetic science does and does not tell us about race and human history leads straight into a minefield, then so be it. This will not be the last word on the subject, but it will begin a powerful and overdue conversation.

©2014 Nicholas Wade (P)2014 Penguin Audio

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  •  
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 06-01-14
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 06-01-14 Member Since 2008

    College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

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    "This is NOT Racism!..."

    For decades, feminists railed against the very idea that there were any fundamental biological differences in males and females that would influence basic behavior and social roles (despite clear knowledge about the roles of testosterone and estrogen on behavior!), and along came brain science and showed that yes, there are differences in the male and female brains that lead to different behavioral and social tendencies. And now the same for race. Here is the simple fact, PC or not, like it or not: the closer you are to any group genetically, the more you are going to be like that group. Don't like it? Complain to God or the Big Bang or Darwin. Genetics are genetics. Now, does this excuse things like prejudice, social engineering, genecide? Of course not. Does this mean that there is NO role that envirornment plays in development? Of course not. Does this mean that every woman is the same as every other woman and that every black person is exactly the same as the next? Of course not. It does mean that biology plays a big role in behavior and that the closer you are to someone genetically, the more of their behavioral tendencies you will inherit. That's science. Live with it.

    13 of 16 people found this review helpful
  •  
    A Synthetic Biologist 05-12-14 Member Since 2010
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    "Racist - but thought provoking"

    I purchased this audiobook because, as a geneticist in a multiracial household, I'm very interested in recent human evolution. For instance, the recent discoveries that non-African people have DNA from other species, such as Neanderthal and Denisovans is very interesting, but popular science (including professional journals) won't broach the potentially difficult implications that real genetic differences exist between people from different parts of the world. Nicholas Wade does mention this fact, and other uncomfortable facts such as different genes, including brain specific genes, appear show different hallmarks of selection difference human populations.

    However, there are two major problems with the book.
    1 - Wade appears to discount the possibility that candidly mentioning differences between races can lead to negative outcomes, even if everything said is true. There are merits to both openness and censorship, but Wade discounts the possibility the truth might lead to negative consequences, even if racial disparities were uncovered.

    2 - Wade is British. He appears to think that British society is the pinnacle of humanity. He ends the book with a defense of British/European influence in the world as stemming from racial superiority (although he tries to get out of this by claiming that Europeans are not "superior", just genetically poised for success and domination). In his view, Africans are not genetically capable of governing themselves in a modern way (otherwise why has African and Haitian society resisted modernizing over the last centuries) and Asians (at least Koreans, Japanese and Han Chinese) are genetically predisposed to being book smart, but not creative. Otherwise why would Japan be so incapable of innovation despite heavy investment (what?), and why would the Chinese steel American trade secrets (because they can?). The final chapter really is quite bizarre, and left a very bad taste in my mouth, like I was ready a racist propaganda pamphlet.

    A few closing thoughts.
    1 - A thesis of this book is that human societies have continued to be under selection for intelligence up until today. Central to this thesis is that smart European people tended to be wealthy, and wealthy people tended to have more children. However, due to the centrality to the premise of this book, I would have expected more data to back these points up. He seems to just think it is self evident.
    2 - A lasting thought from this book is that a society is made up of a population of individuals, who have a certain set of genes. Almost all of these genes are present in most human populations, but with very different distributions. This book claims (and I think twin studies have born out) that much of personality is genetic, so it lets you see your own and other's quirks not necessarily as personal shortcomings, but as the result stochastic pairing of genetic traits, which happened to exist in your parents.
    3 - Reading this book is a weird experience, because it is full of thought provoking concepts, but discussing them amongst friends makes you feel like a racist. Probably because reading this book tends to make you more racist.

    In conclusion - This book will either make you gag, or make you more racist. However, some of the racism is thought provoking. But it is still racist, and do you really want to mull over the merits of being racist? If so, then this book is for you.

    13 of 30 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 05-15-14
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 05-15-14 Member Since 2001

    Letting the rest of the world go by

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    "Generalities and Platitudes make not a conclusion"

    I did listen to the whole book. I regret that.

    He quotes Darwin throughout the book to make some of his points about specialization due to human development. The real great thing about Darwin's book "Origin of Species" is the book is a guide book on how to use critical reasoning in the development of a controversial idea. The author violates all of the necessary steps in order to present an argument. He gives easily shot down straw-man arguments such as "Jared Diamond says that race plays no part in civilization's growth in the development of civilizations". Now, Diamond days say that but it doesn't mean his bigger theme is wrong, geography, plant growth, animal availability and so on doesn't make a difference while race might make a small contribution. (BTW, Diamond's book is much, much better than this one).

    He stacks the deck in favor of his thesis. He defines his terms to most favor his argument. Genes and clusters on the genome can determine a person's "race" (I put it in quotes only because he uses that definition for race. That gives him the most flexibility to see the world in terms of race. Scots, Irish and French would fall under that definition as a race, but he doesn't explicitly refer to that subset as a race).

    He tells a lot of "just so stories" of how the Leopard got his spots, or in this case why the Chinese is less tolerant than the English (an example he does give). He does hypothesize a really rapid change in our Genome and this leads to different institutions because of different behavior because of genetic differences between races.

    Science uses induction to prove, that is going from the particular to the general, the author usually doesn't go from the particular to the general (read Darwin, on how to do that most marvelously). He usually goes from the general to the general thus thinking he's proved his point. He does use some particular data but he can do that poorly, once he said "200 people of Ashkenazim descent in a hospital in Israel have a genetic variant of one gene and 1/3 of them were engineers, scientist or lawyers" much higher than the general population. Wow, that statement by itself is not enough to show anything. His editor should not have allowed that in the book. It doesn't mean that the variant doesn't map to intelligence, but you need another set of data to demonstrate it.

    He uses quotes frequently and excerpts from Thomas Sowell's platitudes to support his positions. Generalities in the form of platitudes prove nothing. Sowell is best left on the pages of the "Washington Times". He also quotes platitudes from Niall Ferguson on capitalism and how the West is superior to the East because of behavior due to our genetics thru race. If you want to write a serious book, don't quote Ferguson on economics (if you ever want to see why just read Paul Krugman's blog when he points out why Ferguson is out of his depth in the field of economics).

    He does quote from Pinker's book, "Better Angels of our Nature", and says the Pinker was afraid to use race and stayed away from that as explanation. That's true, but if you read the book (and I have), Pinker doesn't shy away from a whole host of other reason beyond genetic differences which explains the decline of violence over time that have nothing to do with genetic differences due to race.

    Darwin, in his book, would always word the counter argument to his thesis in the best terms possible before he shot it down. This author doesn't really bring up counter arguments. If you bring up intelligence between races, you should bring up the "Flynn Effect", the fact that IQs when normalized to 1916 have gone up over 15 points. Either we have gotten a lot smarter or there is something in the culture/environment that makes us perform better on test that measure our abstract reasoning or as the author would conclude our genes made us smarter. I don't have the answer, but I do know if I were writing a book to persuade the reader to my belief I would have mentioned items that seem to contradict my thesis. There were a lot of other points the author should have brought up in order to shot down, but he doesn't. I'm left to guess he really doesn't have a good counter argument?

    It's a pity the author did such a poor job. There can be some merit to his thesis, but this book doesn't provide any support for it. Unfortunately, this book will appeal to some who aren't attuned to critical reasoning and prefer generalities and platitudes, and I highly don't recommend it.

    5 of 17 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Eric United States 06-05-14
    Eric United States 06-05-14 Member Since 2012
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    "An interesting hypothesis sure...."
    What did you like best about A Troublesome Inheritance? What did you like least?

    An interesting hypothesis that warrants a discussion - perhaps not a full book? The least part was I liked was the first few chapters - almost returned it, but stuck it out. Enjoyed parts of the second half. A recall on Belayev's foxes experiment in this context is interesting


    If you’ve listened to books by Nicholas Wade before, how does this one compare?

    I haven't


    Which scene was your favorite?

    I learned that they burned dozens of cats alive at the public square in Medieval times - in front of the King. (Spoiler alert) . Perhaps we have developed a larger sense of empathy since then -- ok perhaps.


    Could you see A Troublesome Inheritance being made into a movie or a TV series? Who should the stars be?

    Uh, No


    Any additional comments?

    A professor might say "An interesting hypothesis....let me know if anyone finds any evidence to support it." A long way to go to get to that conclusion.

    0 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Vladimir Kushnir Darien, CT United States 05-21-14
    Vladimir Kushnir Darien, CT United States 05-21-14 Member Since 2009

    vkus

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    "Interesting subject but pure speculation"
    What disappointed you about A Troublesome Inheritance?

    The author has chosen an interesting subject. However, aside from describing two experiments by some Russian scientist with rats and foxes, the rest of the book is pure speculation. The book is full of guesses, ideas, hypothesis, but other than in the two cases mentioned above, there is absolutely no description of any proof, experiments, etc.


    What could Nicholas Wade have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

    To stick to science as opposed to description of what the author considers likely or might have been.


    1 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    R. Jaeger Torrington, CT 05-28-14
    R. Jaeger Torrington, CT 05-28-14 Member Since 2009

    rdjhoya

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    "I'm not sure that I learned anything"

    In our hypersensitive, always offended culture, the premise of this book should be controversial. Has evolution altered genes across "races" and has the evolution contributed to the advancement of some races over others? Science, as understood today, should say that evolution would affect genes over time and with limited commingling, races would evolve differently. This book provides little more than pop science in that regard.

    0 of 7 people found this review helpful
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